What We Teach

The Ethical, Rhetorical, and Practical

Writing and Rhetoric is essentially a course on rhetorical argument. By “argument,” we do not mean a fight or disagreement or quarrel. Rather, we mean argument in the sense described by Douglas Walton as “the giving of reasons to support or criticize a claim that is questionable, or open to doubt” (1). Argument is a means by which to inquire, critique, persuade, achieve consensus—or all of these. Arguments involve complex relationships of writers (or speakers), topics, audiences, situations, and communicative modalities. This is why we say that arguments are “rhetorical” rather than strictly logical or formal.

Rhetoric we define broadly as “the art, practice, and study of human communication” (Lunsford). In this view, rhetoric is the more inclusive category, accounting for all forms of communicative activity, and argument is the sub-category, one of the forms of communicative practice. We teach argument because it is the rhetorical form most widely practiced in the university, because it is a necessary skill for employment, and because proficiency in argument will enable students, after they leave Notre Dame, to participate in broader civic and cultural conversations.

Arguments in the Writing and Rhetoric course are understood to be ethical, rhetorical, and practical.

The Ethical
We hold that making an argument is an ethical activity, one that helps students develop intellectual and moral virtues. According to Aristotle, virtues are excellences of character that are learned through instruction and through habit. Accordingly, we want to teach our students about the relationship of argument to ethics, and we want to give students opportunities to practice what we think of as “rhetorical virtues.”  

The rhetorical virtues that we seek to impart though the teaching of argument include the following:

Honesty: arguments should be grounded in one’s best understanding of what is true. To make honest arguments calls upon students to examine their ideas and preconceptions, and be willing to modify these as necessary.
Knowledge: arguments should reflect knowledge and understanding of the issues at stake. To be informed about the subject of the argument requires students to read deeply, listen carefully, and study diligently.
Rationality: arguments should be made on the basis of relevant evidence and thoughtful reasoning. To make rational arguments requires that students think, reflect, critique, and express ideas clearly. Note that passion and emotion can be rational in some contexts.
Tolerance: arguments should display generosity of spirit in considering the views of others, especially views that differ from one’s own. To argue generously calls upon students to eschew dogma and be open to that most radical of behaviors—changing one’s mind.
Judgment, or Wisdom: arguments should reflect the student’s understanding of what is worth arguing, when it should be argued, and why it is worth arguing. Judgment involves understanding the values of one’s culture and community.
Intellectual Courage: arguments should reflect the writer or speaker’s willingness to say what must be said, especially when it is unpopular.

Students who develop rhetorical virtues will call upon them in both the critiquing and composing of arguments.

The Rhetorical
Given that arguments are a form of rhetorical activity, we offer students an introduction to rhetoric and rhetorical concepts. So while the focus on the course is on argument, we also provide students with a meta-language, or a language about language, that will help students understand how arguments function in diverse rhetorical contexts. Some of our key terms:

Ethosproofs (or evidence) of character, or credibility; what Aristotle called “the controlling factor” in persuasion
Pathosproofs of emotion; appeals to the values of the audience
Logosproofs based in logic and reasoning. These are the forms of argument most commonly taught in our course, and include:

• Definition: “Dissent is the highest expression of patriotism.” (Requires that you define a property and show how the subject meets the definitional criteria you have established.)
• Cause and effect: “The Internet has led to a decline in reading abilities.” (Requires that you explain the cause or causes of an event or a trend.)
• Comparison: “The war in Afghanistan is all too similar to the American experience in Vietnam.”  (Requires that you show how two things are similar or dissimilar.)
• Evaluative: “Abstract expressionism represents the high tide of American creativity.” (Requires that you establish criteria for evaluation and show how the subject to be evaluated meets the criteria.)
• Rebuttal: “The I-Pad is an impediment to human progress, not a gateway.”
(Requires that you show why arguments for a thesis are incorrect, misleading, misconceived, and so forth.)

ArrangementThe organization of the text. Some classical systems recognized six parts of a text: the introduction, the narrative exposition, the partition (“In this paper I will discuss . . .”), the confirmation (the main arguments), the refutation (counterarguments), and the conclusion.
Audiencefor whom do we write and what does this involve? What are the assumptions, expectations, and values of our readers, and how do these shape our texts?
Rhetorical Situationthe event or exigency that calls forth the rhetoric, spoken or written.

The Practical
By practical, we mean those writing practices that will help students succeed in college and grow as writers. Among those are the conventions of:

The Writing Process—learning the writing practices of planning, drafting, and revising texts
Writing Groups—learning to read and comment on the work of others, to explain one’s own work to others, and to learn from others’ critiques
Style Manualslearning to use MLA, APA, and other style manuals
Research Practiceslearning to use databases and other library sources to conduct research
Citation Practiceslearning how to quote, paraphrase, and cite others without plagiarizing
Grammar, Syntax, and Usagelearning to use language in ways that meet the expectations of highly educated readers

Despite the format in which the categories of the Ethical, Rhetorical, and Practical are arranged, they are neither hierarchical nor isolated from one another. To the contrary, they are mutually informing and interwoven. All contribute to students’ development as writers.


Aristotle. The Nicomachean Ethics. J.A.K. Thomson (trans.). London: Penguin Books, 2004.
Lunsford, Andrea. Some Definitions of Rhetoric. February 9, 2012
Walton, Douglas. Fundamentals of Critical Argumentation. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006.